The Bible as Literature
Over the twentieth century, evangelical scholars have fought the battle for the Bible on the grounds of its supernaturalism. They have had to contend for the doctrine of inspiration and for the coherence of the Bible's message. They have had to ward off the suggestions that the Bible contains myths that the Pentateuch was post-exilic, that Jonah never existed, that Jesus was less than the New Testament writers claimed, and that miracles ever happened. The high ground occupied by the Bible at one time has been eroded, and since the early years of the twentieth century, the battle for the Bible has largely been in defence of its divineness.
Recently, however, there has been a shift in the emphasis of evangelical scholars. Many of the leading thinkers in the evangelical world are paying close attention to the humanness of Scripture, and in particular, to the view of the Bible as literature. Some recent publications, such as Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman's A Literary Guide to the Bible, John Harvey's Listening to the Text: oral patterning in Paul's letters and Kevin Vanhoozer's Is there a meaning in this text? urge us to remember that the Bible is a book of human authors, with human styles and written in very human situations. While not losing sight of God's authorship of the Bible, we are to read the Bible to discover what the author meant when he wrote what he did in the way that he did.
Vanhoozer is extremely helpful in his discussion of 'covenantal discourse'. He sees the reading of the Bible as a covenant between author and reader, in which both "the right interpretive methods" and "the right interpretive virtues" are necessary. In other words, the Bible impacts our lives only to the extent that we approach it knowing that different styles of literature (different genres) will have different impacts, and that the way we come to it will determine the extent to which it will shape our thinking and our character.
Basic to this whole discussion is the identification of the books of the Bible as different literary types. Even children can detect the differences between the way the stories of Joseph are written, and the way the letters of Paul are written. It is self-evident that the Bible is not a one-volume book of doctrine, but a multi-volume collection into one piece of different types of writing. From historical narrative to poetic styles, from wisdom literature to prophetic prose, from epistle to apocalyptic, the reader of the Bible is conscious that there are diverse literary styles within the canon of Scripture. Reading the Book requires recognising the books for what they are; preaching the Book requires that attention be paid to the nuances of each type of writing.
To be sure, this poses problems. It is possible, as Don Carson argued recently, to admire the wrenches instead of fix the car. We can be absorbed in the style of the narrative that we cannot see the wood for the trees. Identification of the author's style then becomes an end in itself instead of a tool for the better understanding of the message.
It is possible, too, not to go beyond introductory questions. There are matters to be settled, such as which literary genre a particular Bible book may fit into, and how this affects our understanding of the message. To the extent that critical study of the biblical text is a legitimate field of enquiry, it needs to be done thoroughly, but it needs to be done as introduction, not as conclusion.
However, the exercise of examining the Bible as literature is a necessary one. It reminds us, first, of the humanness of Scripture.
As William Cunningham observes, There is an obvious diversity of style in the different books which compose the Bible, just as there is in the case of other authors who had no divine assistance, no supernatural inspiration; and these differences, just as in the case of ordinary authors, can be in some measure traced to and explained by what we know of the general character of the author, and even of his outward circumstances, the opportunities he enjoyed and the influences by which his natural character may have been formed.Theological Lectures, p352.
Although often cited as an argument against inspiration, this is a proof of it; for only by the superintendence of God could such diversity of style be unified in the coherent whole which we call the Bible.
Which is all surely to tell us that the Bible is for us. It speaks to us in our language and in our form. Story-telling, poetry, proverbial statements and letter-writing are the stuff of everyday life and communication. And while we need our academic theologians to assemble, define and defend the doctrines of Scripture for us, the very fact that God has spoken to us in this way is a sign of his interest in people where they are, and not where we would wish them to be.
It is also a reflection, secondly, on the variety which ought to characterise our religious life and our religious speech. Must our sermons always remain ponderous doctrinal monologues? Is there a place for narrative, for imagination, for humour in preaching, as there surely is in the literature of the Bible? Preachers ought to cultivate skills that reflect what the Bible is: a communication of truth in the forms of men. We have a timeless message to preach; but if we preach it in a timeless way we will be guilty of bypassing a generation that needs to hear.
Finally, the literary nature of the Bible is a mark of its readability. That hardly needs to be said; yet it reminds us that we and our readers need to become biblically literate: What our minds are, we will be. As a man thinks in his heart, so he is. It is only our exposure to the best literature that can make us into the best saints.